Soul legend Allen Toussaint plays Denver Botanic Gardens tonight, and while many might not immediately recognize his name, he is arguably the single most important musician of the New Orleans soul scene of the ’60s and ’70s, and one of the most influential soul producers of all time.
In many ways, Toussaint was like the Quincy Jones of New Orleans, an accomplished musician in his own right, but also an arranger, producer and songwriter for some of the best soul, R&B and funk tunes ever recorded.
And though many of Toussiant’s compositions went on to become huge hits such as Lee Dorsey’s “Working in a Coal Mine,” Ernie K-Doe’s “Mother-in-Law” and Labelle’s “Lady Marmalade,” the name recognition of Toussaint and many of the soul artists he’s produced is unforgivably low.
So, in honor of the underappreciated genius that is Allen Toussaint, here’s a list of other little-known soul artists whose musical greatness has been consigned into relative obscurity over the years. Here are the best obscure classic soul artists you should be listening to:
11. Bettye Swann
Born Betty Jean Champion in Shreveport, La. in 1944, Bettye Swann was best known for her 1967 crossover hit “Make Me Yours.” In the late ’70s Swann’s career took a, well, swan dive, and by the time the ’80s came, she had changed her name to Betty Barton, entered the education sector and became a Jehovah’s Witness.
10. James Carr
A forgotten legend of the Memphis soul scene, James Carr was probably best known for the haunting ballad “At the Dark End of the Street” released in 1966 for Goldwax Records. Carr ironically soon slipped into his own life of darkness, battling drug and alcohol abuse, as well as manic depression and bi-polar disorder. He died of lung cancer in a Memphis hospital at the age of 58.
Perhaps the most obscure artist on this list, William “Darondo” Pulliam never actually released a full album, only recording a handful of singles. After a brief stint opening for James Brown in the ’70s, Darondo disappeared from the music scene for reasons unknown. He has seen a small uptick in popularity recently after his song “Didn’t I” was used in a first-season episode of AMC’s “Breaking Bad.”
8. Candi Staton
Known as the “First Lady of Southern Soul,” Candi Staton cut her teeth as a teenager on the gospel circuit, but didn’t come into her own until she started working for Rick Hall’s Fame Studios where she recorded some classic soul renditions of country songs such as “Stand by Your Man” and “In the Ghetto.” She briefly flirted with disco in the ’70s and then returned to her gospel roots. In 1992, Staton managed to score a top 10 hit in the UK with the song “You Got the Love.”
7. Joe Tex
Soul virtuoso Joe Tex is perhaps most famous for getting into a pissing contest with James Brown, whom Tex accused of stealing his stage moves. But Brown may have got the best of the feud, far outselling Tex, later stealing Tex’s wife, Bea Ford, and even allegedly firing some wild rounds at Tex in a New York nightclub. Tex is sometimes credited with inventing the term “rap,” which was how he described his style of occasionally speaking over his music.
6. Don Covay
Once the chauffeur for Little Richard, Don Covay co-wrote and recorded the song “Pony Time,” which went on to become a No. 1 hit — only for Chubby Checker when he re-recorded it in 1961. His song “Mercy Mercy” featured a then-unknown and very young Jimi Hendrix on guitar and was later covered by the Rolling Stones. Covay went on to write songs for Solomon Burke and Gladys Knight & The Pips.
5. Irma Thomas
The “Soul Queen of New Orleans,” Irma Thomas was a contemporary of Etta James and Aretha Franklin, only without any of the commercial success. After 45 years in the business and over 15 albums, many of which produced by Allen Toussaint, Thomas finally won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album in 2007 for her album “After the Rain.”
4. Eddie Bo
Born Edwin Bocage in 1930, New Orleans resident and funk/soul master Eddie Bo recorded more than 50 singles throughout his career, an achievement in New Orleans only surpassed by Fats Domino. He wrote songs for Etta James and Tommy Ridgley, and he also produced and arranged records for Chuck Carbo, Irma Thomas, Mary Jane Hooper and Art Neville.
3. Ann Peebles
Another member of the Memphis soul scene, Ann Peebles did achieve a modicum of commercial success in her career, but her extensive catalogue has since faded into relative obscurity. She had a minor hit with the song “I Can’t Stand the Rain,” a tune John Lennon once called “the best song ever.” Peebles’ songs have since been sampled numerous times by hip-hop artists such as RZA and the Wu-Tang Clan.
2. O.V. Wright
Like James Carr, Overton Vertis Wright was another Memphis soul artist on the Goldwax Record label that died too early. O.V. Wright was one of the most influential singers whose name most people have probably never heard. While Wright never garnered the commercial success he deserved, his legacy can be seen in everyone from Otis Redding (who made famous Wright’s “That’s How Strong My Love Is” to Al Green. Wright struggled with drug addiction and died of a heart attack at age 41.
1. Lee Dorsey
It may seem strange to refer to someone with two top 10 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 under his belt as “obscure,” but while people may remember Lee Dorsey’s signature hit “Working in a Coalmine,” few people remember who sang it. Dorsey went to record some of the greatest rare gems in all of soul music. It’s hard to beat working with Allen Toussaint as a producer/co-songwriter and having the Meters as a backing band for most of his career. Dorsey also wasn’t afraid to shy away from the occasional political commentary with songs such as “Yes We Can,” “Who’s Gonna Help Brother Get Further?” and “Freedom for the Stallion.”
Paul Smith is a Denver Post Online intern and a new contributor to Reverb.